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Peloponnesian War
Hellenistic Politics

The collapse of Athens opened the way for Spartan domination of the Greek mainland. During the war, Sparta had accepted Persian help, particularly on the seas, and in return it handed over control of the Greek states in Asia. In Greece, the Spartans installed tight controls supported by a local military garrison, while requiring almost as much tribute as Athens had once collected from its dependencies in the Delian league. These policies plus Sparta's unyielding hostility to any democratic forms soon caused resentments, which among other things gave Athens a chance to regain some independence.

Periodic wars against the Persians and among key Greek states dominated the first half of the 4th century. An alliance between Athens and the city-state of Thebes successfully attacked the Spartans, briefly setting up a Theban Empire in northern Greece. Athens formed a new league of its own, but soon began to abuse its allies through tribute demands and interference. Having defeated Thebes, Athens's federation collapsed amid revolt. By 355 B.C. Greece had returned to a setting of independent, disorganized city-states, many of them exhausted by decades of war and civil strife.

The Peloponnesian War destroyed the basis for informal Greek unity, while weakening both the major combatants. It took only a few decades to realize that Greek politics had lost its luster. The larger Greek empire began to break up as colonies were pulled away, while a dangerous vacuum of power opened in the mainland itself.

A New Empire Replaces Classical Greece

Into this vacuum came a new force from the kingdom of Macedon on the borders of Greece. Macedonian conquests in turn opened a period of three centuries in which Greek culture spread widely in Egypt and far into western Asia. Greek city-states persisted in this new Hellenistic world, but they were no longer the dominant forms. Greek culture also mixed with new elements from the Middle East and India, though on the whole Hellenistic culture built more clearly on Greek themes than Hellenistic politics did. In geography, politics, and to an extent culture, a new era opened in the 4th century, just as Greek institutions lost their vitality. The roots of the new order lay in the rise of a Macedonian dynasty that conquered first Greece and then the Persian Empire within two generations.

Macedon, a kingdom to the north of Greece, was semi-barbaric by Greek standards and loosely organized under a king. Its residents spoke Greek, and Macedonian kings had long been interested in Greek culture. When King Philip II (359-336 B.C.) seized power, he strengthened the monarchy within Macedon and then turned his attention to the chaos of Greece. Skilled both as a general and diplomat, Philip soon developed a strong army that had more flexible tactics than the standard citizen force of the poleis. By seizing some northern Greek territory, he gained the resources to pay mercenary troops and peasant soldiers. Then he turned to the divided city-states of central Greece.

Despite warnings by insightful leaders, states such as Athens were no longer willing to make major sacrifices for self-defense. Philip also found allies in Greek statesmen who wanted a new unity, even if imposed from the outside. Finally, in 338 B.C., Philip won a decisive battle, aided by a cavalry charge led by his 18-year-old son Alexander. Macedon now ruled the bulk of Greece, and while the city-states retained their governments with rights of internal administration, Macedonian garrisons assured tax tributes and loyalty to the new kingdom.

Alexander The Great

Philip's death left the next stage of Macedonian expansion to Alexander, who gained power at the age of 20. Alexander, eager to continue his father's thrust for conquest, logically turned to the target of the Persian Empire, still vast but now weakly ruled. In 334 B.C., Alexander moved into Asia with about 35,000 troops. Daring triumphs brought him control of the Persian side of the Mediterranean coast. Then, in 333 B.C., Alexander defeated the main Persian army led by its emperor in Syria.

Persian efforts to sue for peace were ignored: Alexander wanted the whole empire and more, if possible. He moved into Egypt, now a weakened regional state, where he was greeted as pharaoh and son of a god. By 331 B.C., he entered Babylon and then seized the vast Persian treasury, as the Greeks and Macedonians gained revenge for the many Persian threats to their homeland. Alexander pressed into India, but he finally had to stop because his men refused to go farther.

Alexander planned a dazzling future for his new empire, hoping to merge Greek and Asian institutions and values and add further conquests. He founded many cities bearing his name, the most famous one in Egypt. He spread Macedonian and Greek officials through his vast new Middle Eastern holdings. Alexander also encouraged intermarriage with Persian and other local women, a practice in which he himself set an example. Eager to promote a Hellenistic culture, evidenced by his founding centers of scholarship in Greek learning, Alexander also recognized the need to accommodate various traditions in a multinational empire. Whether he could have succeeded in consolidating his unprecedented holdings, given his vision and organizational skills, cannot be known for he died of a fever in Babylon at the age of 33.

Later Hellenistic States

Alexander's unexpected death quickly brought disunity to the new empire, though not an end to the Hellenistic enterprise. Quarrels among his successors allowed key generals to seize the major provinces as kings. Three major regional dynasties resulted - one in Egypt (the Ptolemies) that ended with the suicide of the famous queen, Cleopatra, in 31 B.C.; one in Mesopotamia (the Seleucids); and one in Macedonia, Greece, and the northern Middle East (the Antigonids).

The three major successor states enjoyed about 75 years of vigor and prosperity. Trade in Greek goods continued to flourish, and all the new kings encouraged commerce. Many Greeks moved toward the government jobs and merchant positions available in the Middle East. Wealth centered, however, on the city dwellers and the Hellenized upper classes (whether of Greek origin or not), while native peasants suffered from high taxes and the lack of adequate land. Internal divisions caused a decline in pro- duction and combined with warfare among the kingdoms to weaken the successor states and open them to outside attack. By the 2d century B.C. - just as Rome was beginning to expand - all the Hellenistic kingdoms except the one in Egypt had vanished.

The two centuries of Hellenism marked the end of the characteristically Greek political style. City-states continued officially to exist, and they would maintain some functions even later under Roman control. But they no longer served as intense focal points because of the control exercised by foreign monarchs. Hellenistic politics centered on military empires. While few dramatic or enduring political principles emerged from this approach, Alexander and his successors provided vital service in preserving large segments of Greek culture after city-state quarrels had exhausted earlier government systems. They also creatively extended this culture well beyond Greece and its earlier colonies to a larger Mediterranean and Middle Eastern zone, as well as to India. Hellenistic kingdoms also developed trade and artistic contacts with the African kingdom of Kush, bringing new impulses to this civilization.

Hellenism did not bring cultural unity or political cohesion to the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean. There was new interchange, however, and some common interests in Greek science and philosophy that would outlast the Hellenistic period, continuing into the Roman era and beyond. Hellenist leaders also generated innovations, particularly in science. The spread of a Greek-derived culture, then, set a new framework for intellectual life in a large and diverse portion of the civilized world. This heritage would have pleased the Hellenistic conquerors, who saw cultural expansion as part of their mission.


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